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Mark Wlodawski - USA Pavilion Student Ambassador

USA Pavilion Student Ambassador from the University of Memphis, now serving at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo
May 7, 2010

Who I Met Today: My Governor                                                 May 29, 2010

Last week, the governor of my state (Tennessee) visited the USA pavilion at the Shanghai Expo,
and I had the honor of meeting Governor Phil Bredesen! It was an interesting experience, considering how I could not have met him in Memphis without an appointment or special reasons. We had a discussion with Commissioner General Villarreal about Memphis BBQ vs. San Antonio’s, but Governor Bredesen agreed that Memphis won hands down. Teachers at my school and other people in my life were very happy and proud to hear about the experience and read the pictures.

Ohel Rachel Opening                                                                    May 7, 2010

Yesterday, I went to the grand reopening  of the Ohel Rachel synagogue on Shaanxi Bei Lu. After numerous years of being a museum dedicated to the memory of , Shanghai mayor who issued 30,000+ passports and visas to Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust, the site was officially reopened as a synagogue. I read about it on the Chabad Jewish web site, and asked Rabbi Alevsky about it when he returned my email.

The ceremony was lovely: attended by people of all shapes, sizes, levels of religiosity, and nationalities, it was truly an amazing time and place to be a Jew in Shanghai. There were Chinese women holding their babies, and though I assumed they had converted to Judaism, I did not ask; there were many French Jews of both genders and multiple age groups, and in fact the copies of the Chumash in the foyer were translated into French: Le Pentateuch. There were many Israelis, all speaking Hebrew, some with large families and others were mid-twenties, and some of them work in the Israel Pavilion at the Expo. There were also Australian Jews, some of whom my friend Max who accompanied me already knew, some he hadn’t ever met but because Australia has a small population and a small number of large cities they had visited several of the same places. Out of the American guests, there were New Yorkers, a guy from Atlanta, two from Mississippi, one from Boston and one from Los Angeles. Some of them had been to Memphis and some had been to other parts of Tennessee, in fact even some of the foreigners (we were all foreigners last night! That is, except for the Chinese staff, Chinese wives and children, Chinese reporters, and Chinese photographers. There might even have been some Chinese politicians in attendance) had visited Memphis. One of the New Yorkers sang part of Johnny Rivers’ “Long distance information, give me Memphis, TN,” and wanted me to sing along with him.

During the opening ceremony, several rabbis and prominent people in Shanghai talked about the fact that we were all there at an amazing period in time. Indeed, when one thinks about how the last time the synagogue was used for prayer it was for refugees from the Holocaust, and this time it is for people who had the right to leave wherever they were to come here, it is quite significant. Three groups of prominent men, including rabbis and the president of Ohel Rachel, were invited to cut ribbons and say prayers before posting the mezuzot to the door frames. Next, we located prayer books and entered the large chapel to say Shabbat prayers Orthodox/Chabad style. We prayed, sang songs like Lecha Dodi, danced around the room, clapped our hands and so forth. When it came time for the Mourner’s Kaddish, it was especially significant for me: I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for my mother, for the first time since her funeral last year. A tear came to my eye and I kept thinking about her the rest of the night. I stood next to an old man who said it too, and he looked at me as if to say, “Why are you saying this?” I explained to him and asked him how long I should say it during prayers, and he said “For 11 months following her death, according to the Hebrew calendar.” Following prayers and announcements, there was Shabbat dinner!

It was my first Shabbat dinner, Orthodox-style, in a long time, so I was happy. Bottles of wine and challot were placed on the tables and, sorry to say, we grouped together by native language spoken. I met some interesting people there, including a teacher from NYU who has been teaching Chinese students about the business world in China. He wants me to lecture his class about what it’s like to work in business in China, especially about delivering progress reports, which I will actually have to do for the first time before I speak to them. I met a man who owns and rents out apartments in China, a student from Atlanta who studies Chinese and business like I do, an Israeli who works at their pavilion, a French woman, a French family (so not totally by first language), and a couple other Americans whom I didn’t talk to that much. The menu for the evening included vegetable salads, noodle salads, salmon, meat, potatoes, soup, couscous, cookies, brownies, and more, so it was traditional and wonderful. Towards the end of the meal, we were treated to a couple of sermons.

The second and more memorable one was about a couple of Chabad rabbis who traveled around to various synagogues and Jewish communities to investigate. One man they visited, who lived in Chicago, tried to offer money as a donation to the rabbis, which they turned down. He was surprised, and asked “Why then did you come? Who am I that you should come see me?” The rabbis responded “Every Jew is significant and as important as a letter in the Torah,” referencing the fact that if a Torah scroll is missing even a single letter, it is invalid. This implies that all Jews are a part of Judaism and, in turn, significant and holy. They relayed this story to the rabbi who told them to go and he turned ashen white before saying “We are more important even than that: a letter on a Torah scroll can be erased or cut out, while a Jew is as indestructible and important as an engraving of a letter in the original tablets of the Ten Commandments; once the Jew has been created, there is no way to totally erase him/her.” Sermons (Dvar Torah) that talk about the importance of Jews and how we should all feel significant and valuable, like the world was created for me, to be a light unto the nations, etc., always make me feel good and worthwhile. This is the perfect lecture to hear when one is depressed or just having a bad day, if one takes it to heart and actually listens to the rabbi during his speech.

After the meal, we said the Birchat Hamazon (after meal prayer), and some of us hailed taxis, others walked to their hotels, and still others remained behind to sing/pray/talk about Torah lessons. Considering my religious interest, desire to be part of something great, and senior project which I intend to turn into a longer paper, it was the perfect place for me to be last night. Thanks to Baruch Hashem for helping me find out about the opportunity and actually attend it. The world is a beautiful place, “and worth fighting for.”

Making it all Work                                                                             May 1, 2010

As some of you may know, most Expo pavilions were funded directly by the governments of their respective countries. Some governments had plenty to spend; in fact one Saudi Arabian official was quoted as saying "Money is no object," thus their large "Moon Boat" pavilion, complete with the largest movie theater in the world, trees supposedly from native Saudi Arabia (some sources say they repeatedly died, so look-alikes were brought in from somewhere in southeast China). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the U.S. government was restricted by law from contributing federal funds to pay for pavilions, so all of the money had to be raised privately. That was incredibly tough, especially given the state of the economy, until Secretary Clinton got involved. She made it her job to find the money, and with less than a year before the Expo was to begin, they found the money and built the USA Pavilion. ("they found the money and built the Pavilion" summarizes the hard work of many, many politicians, businessmen, architects, coordinators, etc., but to tell the whole story would take more than just one blog post!)

Through the generous contributions of many U.S.-based corporations, the U.S. has an "eagle-shaped" Pavilion (hardware), made up of our exhibits, informative movies, and a gigantic Astro-Vision screen outside. Its wings consist of the gift shop below the 1776 Suite, and the quick-serve restaurant below the Pavilion offices. Also on the top floor is a garden meant to resemble First Lady Michelle Obama's garden.

We also have a very diverse staff (software) including: accountants, marketers, PR, operations, chefs, waiters, security, shopkeepers, sound technicians, so many more, and of course the Student Ambassadors, the "best part, the part that people will remember long after they've forgotten all our exhibits" who have been integrated into almost every department from Protocol services to Accounting (ahem!) to Operations and Communications. We all hail from different parts of the world: some students were born in China but lived significant parts of their lives in the U.S., almost all of our maintenance and security staff is Chinese, the manager of the uniform room is from Australia, and one of the supervisors of the Hospitality department is Italian!

Management has shared a few comments from our patrons: "she was so impressed by the Student Ambassadors and how they are greeting the audience and led them through the experience safely, efficiently, and warmly, and all with only a couple days rehearsal!" and "A number of guests commented that the USA Pavilion was one of the most welcoming pavilions visited because of the friendly demeanor of you, our staff. They were extremely impressed by your Chinese and indicated we were one of the best trained staffs they had encountered on the Expo Grounds." Let's hear it for training classes!

Food in and Near the Village                                                           April 23, 2010

One very important part of life is eating, and it is no less important here. Shanghai is a very large and densely populated city, and the phrase "Chinese food" covers such a huge gamut that saying "I had Chinese food for dinner" means nothing specific. For example, did you dine in a large, popular, very visible restaurant? If so, you may have overpaid for your pan of fried dumplings, bowl of dumpling soup, pot of tea, or plate of spring rolls. Tea is typically served free of charge here. Maybe you visited a street vendor who was pushing a steaming cart selling ears of corn, steamed buns stuffed with vegetables or meatballs, or craw fish (they're in season!), in which case you probably spent $0.50 for a very satisfying meal. Next up, there's the small, out of the way restaurant that may or may not have a sign on the door. I ate in a place like that a couple of nights ago: only 4 tables but there wasn't a wait, comparatively clean, and they offered free napkins (unusual) and tea (usual). These are the places where you fill up with 4-5 distinct ethnic dishes, brought steaming and delicious to the table, for only $1.50 per person!

What if you prefer to eat prepackaged food from the grocery store or convenience store? Some have pots with hot liquid that store meatballs or ears of corn, or there's a hot case filled with dumpling-type objects near the register, or there's some individual-sized containers of scrambled eggs next to rice, long rolls of sushi, and the list goes on and on.

Last but not least, there's the foreign fast food, especially those originating in the U.S. Pizza Hut, Papa John's, McDonald's, Burger King, and don't forget KFC!

You'll find it all here in Shanghai.

The First Few Days...                                                           April 19, 2010

Ni Hao! Today was the final day of classroom training, and it's both sad and a relief. Over the past few days, we have learned about everything from how to greet dignitaries to layouts of the Expo and our Pavilion to first aid and how to save people. We were given very quick introductions to Chinese culture, history, values, etc., hospitality techniques and their importance, and many other valuable lessons. The reason I typed "both sad and a relief" is because we had a lot of fun interacting with each other in those classes. We found out who has a sense of humor, who is timid in front of others, who unabashedly speaks his/her mind, and who has artistic talent. Quite a lot for 4 days, I agree!

Anyway, here's a little bit about the area I live in. It's a brand spanking new area of Shanghai called the Expo Village. We live in apartments that have never been occupied, use appliances that were taken off the shelves of Wal-Mart and delivered to us, and go through checkpoints for everything! I swear, this place is so locked down and secure that I would never dream of being afraid. Seriously, security is everywhere and you need special passes to get into the Village.

I'm starting to learn my way around here, which is a feat let me assure you! Everyday I walk for hours and jog in the morning, there is only some yogurt in my refrigerator, and the food I eat is very light, so I'm already losing weight! I feel like it's been such a short time since my last time here, but some things here remind me the length of time, like the fact that there was an old sim card in the back of my previous Chinese phone, and that and the metro travel card were both inactive and obsolete.

The Expo site is huge and there are so many amazing pavilions so far. Most of them are colorful and very creative, some of them are not, and some are not yet complete, but the opening day is quickly approaching so the urgency is becoming apparent.

The rough estimate of visitors to the USA Pavilion is 35,000 people/day, though that's an estimate for something that has never happened before.

More to come!

Hello Everybody!                                                                  April 17, 2010

If you don't know my whole story (why is Mark even interested in China? How did he get his start? What else has Mark done over the past few years?), so here it is:

July 2005, I was hired at Mosa Asian Bistro in Memphis,TN as a waiter. That August, upon the recommendation of my good friend Adam, I followed my interests in cooking and entertaining by declaring myself a Hospitality Management-Culinary Arts major, so I would specialize in restaurant management. I had the idea that Spanish would be a good language to teach myself given my career choice, so I bought a cd set called Learn in Your Car. I took to it so well that my Chinese coworker Xing suggested I try Chinese. Turns out to be the most life-changing experience of my life (sorry Adam). Because I followed through with it, and picked it up fairly well, I decided to use it to the most valuable end: in September 2006, I set my sights on University of Memphis's International MBA program. Given my choice of academia, I was no longer able to work 60 hours/week at mosa, so I left and applied at Papa John's, where I stayed for 3.5 years.

During my remaining year at Southwest TN Community College, I took prerequisites for the International MBA and continued studying Chinese on my own. I graduated from there with a 3.5 GPA, so when I transferred back to U of M(emphis), they offered me the Community College Transfer Scholarship, which I gladly accepted. I planned on majoring in Hospitality Management again, and would still be in that major now, except the first day of the fall semester 2007 I discovered an advertisement for Dr. Hsiang-Te Kung's major ASIT (Asian Studies & International Trade), which was an undergraduate version of the IMBA program. When I explored it, I discovered that it better prepared me for the IMBA and in a much shorter time. I changed majors and set my sights on graduating May of 2009.

Following a successful first semester at U of M, my Chinese language teacher Dr. Zhang Lan suggested some fellow students and I establish a Chinese club. At the first meeting, we had an election to determine officers and I won the Presidency; along with Jade Powell (Vice President), Marie Dennan (Press Ambassador), Daniel Graubman (Treasurer), and Kristina Thomas (Creative Director), we operated for 3 semesters as the Student Consortium for Chinese Awareness. We had a great time, several successful events, and got the club off to a good start before handing leadership over to Silu Wang and Julian Poon.

In order to graduate in May 2009, I still needed 2 more semesters of Chinese language study. The opportunity to earn those in China presented itself, so I came to study from June through August of 2008. I returned in August 2008, had a very successful senior year with such extracurricular activities as the Chinese club, Hillel of Memphis (Jewish student union), and MILE business leadership club, all while working weekends at Papa John's.

I was eventually accepted into the IMBA program, graduated May 2009 (per my goal), and began the IMBA program fall of 2009. That semester was very challenging for me. First, my mother died on September 29th. Despite that, 5 graduate classes, working at Papa John's, and volunteering at the Confucius Institute all still required my attention. Then in October, a unique opportunity was presented to me: represent the United States, Tennessee, Memphis, the University of Memphis, and the International MBA program at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo! I was eventually accepted to work for the USA Pavilion, but then a problem arose: how to convince the director of my program, Dr. Benwari Kedia, that this was a valuable business internship and that he should allow me to leave Memphis 4 weeks earlier than the end of the semester? After doing some research, I discovered that Deloitte and Touche was the official accounting firm for the USA Pavilion, and through the hard work and selfless efforts of Hans, Mark, and Jacob, I was awarded THE internship that a business student who studies Chinese could never dream of in a million years!

After receiving approval from Dr. Kedia, I continued to work my tail off and finished 4/6 classes early. Unfortunately, I have to complete the final 2 from China.

Well, that completes my story thus far! I just arrived in China on the 15th, and I'm ready to post more info about that!

谢谢!(Chinese for Thank You!)